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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Everything We Need to Know About the 53%, We Can Learn From Watching The Handmaid’s Tale


Why would they vote against their own self interests? This was the question many of us asked—in anger, horror and complete confusion—after the election of the least competent president in recorded history (thus far).

How could they do it? The Rust Belt, Alt-Right and Republicans die-hards were expected, but masses of college-educated, presumably politically-aware women? No.

I should clarify: White women. Fifty-three percent of them, to be exact. After all, in spite of a strong #GirlIGuessImWithHer stance, 94% black women still showed up and showed out against Trump. Likewise, 68% of Latinas attempted to build a wall of their own against bigotry, and a solid 83% of Asian-American women did the same. But despite damning receipts, rhetoric, recordings and a white, female candidate who undoubtedly represented their interests more than any other demographic, 53% of white women ultimately cast their vote for the most unapologetically bullying, sexist, inexperienced and hypocritical candidate in recent history.


How, Sway? 

This was what so many of us couldn’t—and never will—understand. Heather Malick posited, pre-election: “As for Trump’s female voters, they have inhaled misogyny all their lives; it is not a surprise to see that they breathe it out in 2016.”

Umm…okay. I guess.

Not that we ever expected white women to vote en masse in our best interests. If that unlikelihood wasn’t established pre-Civil War, it was certainly affirmed by both the suffragist and traditional feminist movements. But either through complete denial or utter complicity, white women inexplicably helped hand America to Trump and his merry band of fundamentalists, climate deniers and supremacists. Hell, even legendary liberal Susan Sarandon refused to support his opponent, famously quipping that she “[doesn’t} vote with [her] vagina.

Well, perhaps she should’ve—that is, unless she prefers having her vagina grabbed by the tiny hands of cotton-candy-haired megalomaniacs. Either way, what a luxury to have the choice. Because Susan Sarandon’s brand of feminism—as progressive as it claims to be—is one in which choice is still a given. But for many women during this last election cycle (myself included), there simply was no other logical choice. So, we made do, hopefully for the sake of the greater good.

Making do seems to be the theme of Hulu’s skillful adaptation ofThe Handmaid’s Tale, a contemporary serial retelling of Margaret Atwood’s much-acclaimed 1985 dystopian novel. Originally imagined around 2005, Atwood’s narrative takes place in a not-too-distant America—now renamed Gilead. A series of environmental events and terrorist attacks have converged to both threaten human fertility and weaken the political system, paving the way for a Christian fundamentalist theocracy to emerge as both church and state.

In this new society, women are stripped of their autonomy, color-coded into complicity, simultaneously prized and imprisoned for their fertility, forced to reproduce if able, and designated criminals for having abortions, being gay, raped, or committing adultery—as our heroine apparently has, having met her husband before he divorced his previous wife (Did I mention divorces are no longer optional in this brave new world?).


Ironically, this new retelling—presciently filmed during the tail end of the last election cycle—reveals that the forced reproduction that is the backbone of Gilead’s economy was initially the brainchild of Serena Joy, wife of one of the “commanders” who eventually comes to power. “Fertility as a national resource; reproduction as a moral imperative,” she suggests to her husband in a flashback, moments before he reveals that a coup to overthrow the existing government—in which women are still considered autonomous citizens—is imminent.

“Things have to change,” she implores him. “There’s pain now. So much of it…We’re saving them. We’re doing God’s work.”


Things do change. In fact, this will be perhaps the last time Serena Joy’s opinion is asked for or considered, despite her articulation of the very principles upon which this new society will stand.

“This is our fault,” a fellow commander later reassures her husband, assuaging his guilt over her betrayal. “We gave them more than they could handle. They put so much focus on academic pursuits and professional ambition, we let them forget their real purpose. We won’t let that happen again.”

When discussing the results of the last presidential election, my mother—who came of age during the dawn of oral contraception and the sexual liberation it helped promote—contends that ultimately, the 53% was primarily comprised of women vehemently against other women’s choice to be—or not be—parents. This virulent need to control the lives of others—in the name of God—is nothing new here in America. Centuries before Ivanka or the fictional Serena Joy, white women have traditionally been complicit in the oppression of other women. As Aisha Mirza writes for Buzzfeed:


“White women, especially the monied ones, are so dangerous because they are allowed to be so soft. Stroke by stroke, they construct a type of womanhood that viciously negates the fact their bodies still function as agents of white supremacy. They are so gentle with themselves that they simply cannot comprehend that they could be oppressed and yet still oppressive.

And this is the paradox—of both The Handmaid’s Tale, and the 53% in our very real America. Instead of a world in which her particular brand of morality wins the high ground, Serena Joy’s morality overtakes her world altogether, subjugating her along with everyone else. The former author now inhabits a world where women aren’t allowed to read; does she continue to believe the ends justify the means? Or are the scraps of intimacy occasionally tossed to her enough to quell the truth of her own self-betrayal? One need look no further than our Circus-Peanut-in-Chief and his First Lady to understand that intimacy and oppression rarely go hand-in-hand (pun intended).


This is not the first retelling of The Handmaid’s Tale. And yet, this newest iteration asks us to do something its predecessors—problematic in their own way—did not. Seeking to add diversity and dimension to the backstory of our white, college-educated, formerly professional heroine, Hulu’s version gives her both a black best friend and husband (whom she wins via an extramarital affair) and a biracial child. And yet, seven episodes in, race has barely entered the conversation, if at all. Indeed, we’re still not sure of the significance of these plot twists, which never appeared in Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking novel.

This is to say that by deviating even slightly from Atwood’s white-centric (and therefore, inherently racist) dystopian vision, this updated version introduces a host of new questions. For instance, are the writers conscious of the significance of a black, queer woman speaking the truth of her experience to a white, hetero, married friend who seems intent on denying what is happening before her very eyes? And if our white heroine’s husband is black, was the wife he left for her also black? If so, will the intertwining dynamics of adultery and race ever play out? Is it safe to assume that all “Marthas” (loyal, but infertile servants) are of color, like the few we’ve seen? And if the ruling class looks like a page ripped from an Aryan family values magazine, is the only point of retaining handmaids of color to produce more servants?


A deftly written analysis by The Establishment’s Ana Cottle contends that Atwood’s original work “appropriates the black female slave experience and applies it to white women — while banishing actual women of color to a place we never see…in other words, the book poses some problems — and in addressing them, the Hulu series has created its own.”

In short, our white heroine may be a victim, but her complicity often unwittingly comes into question as well.

This is the problem that is bigger than the 53%: the “victims” who are not entirely blameless in our demise or their own; who can recognize oppression without acknowledgement until it happens to them. The ones who—even in their own oppression—will still benefit from whiteness whenever possible. The ones who, as Mirza writes, “will choose comfort over effort…will read this and think I am talking about someone else.”


Do they watch The Handmaid’s Tale and recognize that complicity? And if they are watching, do they see themselves?

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